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Madness returns to George Mason in thrilling comeback over 'Nova

CLEVELAND -- Suddenly, Luke Hancock was all alone. Madness still surrounded the bandaged George Mason guard, of course: the shot clock had flicked off, a screaming crowd of thousands was on its feet, and with his team down one to Villanova, 57-56, time circled the drain. Twenty-two seconds. Twenty-one. Twenty.

But after walking the ball across half-court, driving right and calmly crossing back over after two dribbles, Hancock's defender, Wildcats guard Corey Stokes, now drifted toward the block, as if hypnotized by his mark's slow pace. Hancock was left behind the arc, wide open, and had no choice but to let fly his second three of the game. "I was kind of hoping and praying," Hancock would say later.

For Villanova, unfortunately, George Mason's prayers have a history of being answered this time of year. Hancock's shot -- a perfect dagger with 20 seconds remaining -- swished in. Moments later, he proceeded to gather Stokes' reply, a jumper that missed badly with five seconds left, and hurl the ball toward streaking 6-foot-9 forward Mike Morrison. The subsequent two-handed dunk put a thunderous exclamation point on the final score: No. 8 George Mason 61, No. 9 Villanova 57.

"I remember dunking," said a delirious Morrison, who carried a yellow t-shirt emblazoned with the words "We ARE This Year's George Mason." "But I really don't remember anything else about it at all. I just know everybody went crazy."

Fans of Villanova (21-12) most of all. After starting the season 16-1, seemingly verifying their consensus slot in the preseason Top 10, the Wildcats finished the year with six losses in a row. Indeed, of the 25 questions posed at yesterday's news conference with coach Jay Wright and his team, all but eight featured some variation on the themes of disappointment or losing.

Which is not to say that George Mason necessarily outclassed the competition. By the end an ordinarily efficient GMU team had shot 40.4 percent (and only 28.6 from three); Villanova, meanwhile, shot 36.5 from the field (and just 29.2 in the second half). Both teams had nine turnovers. And in the first half the Wildcats' two Coreys -- Stokes and Fisher -- repeatedly lacerated the Patriots' defense, scoring 26 combined as Villanova carried a six-point lead into the break.

On the postgame dais, asked for opening remarks, Patriots coach Jim Larranaga sarcastically quipped, "Well, I thought the game was really pretty. Both teams executing at a very high level. What was the final score, like 88-86, something like that?"

What this game really resembled, the architect of Mason's magical 2006 Final Four run clarified, was "a prize fight." The kind of bout where "both guys punch very, very hard. And we kind of ended up being the last team standing."

Hancock, wearing a bandage and wrap around his left shoulder, looked the part of a fighter most of all. No, the 6'5", zero-star recruit from Chatham, Va. is not what you'd call explosive, or quick, or physically intimidating. In fact, he injured himself slipping and falling on black ice outside his dorm in January, earning no shortage of flack from his teammates. "I don't look like these guys," Hancock would admit with a laugh, walking down a hallway with Patriots star Cam Long (held to just seven points) and Morrison after the win. "I'm not a freak athlete."

But today, with 18 points -- several coming on crafty drives -- and five assists against only one turnover, the sophomore did it all. "Luke's like a point forward," GMU forward Ryan Pearson says. "He can spread out teams by hitting the three. He can get to the basket at will. And he always finds the open guy."

Himself, thankfully, included.